University Park Airport getting flights to Chicago

Starting in January, passengers can fly nonstop to Chicago from University Park Airport, the airport announced Monday.

“I wish it were us making that announcement,” said Altoona Blair County Airport Authority Chairman Lanny Ross.

Market analyses show that Chicago is the State College area’s No. 3 destination – the first is Orlando – largely because of ties, including the Big 10 affiliation between the Midwest’s largest city and Penn State University and other local businesses, said Bryan Rodgers, the University Park Airport’s director.

The United Airlines ExpressJet service will begin two daily round-trip flights on 50-seat regional jets on Jan. 7, according to Rodgers. Those flights will complement United’s existing non-stop flights to Dulles in Washington, D.C., Delta’s to Detroit and US Airways’ to Philadelphia.

It will also bring University Park back toward the service level it had around 2008, when the merger of Delta with Northwest, the tanking of the economy and a rise in fuel prices led to the dropping of flights to Cincinnati and Atlanta, Rodgers said.

Before those losses, University Park had four carriers with flights to five hubs, Rodgers said.

By January, it will have three carriers flying to four hubs, he said.

The Chicago flights will offer passengers convenient connections to foreign nations, especially in the Far East – from which many Penn State draws a significant number of students, according to Rodgers.

Because of those international connections, the new service will complement United’s service to Dulles, which doesn’t have many of those links, he said.

As an incentive for United, and to help ensure a successful start, the airport – as is customary in cases like this – may be providing some fee abatements, Rodgers said.

“Until it gets off the ground,” he said. “After that, they’re on their own.”

Airlines generally want to see their planes at least 80 percent full, he said.

Reservations are available immediately through and on Facebook.

University Park Airport handled 144,000 passenger departures in 2011, and the Chicago flights should make that number “go up a bit,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers is hoping the Chicago flights give people “a reason not to have to drive to Harrisburg,” he said.

The University Park Airport’s catchment area goes southwest to the near edge of Altoona, southeast to Lewistown, northeast to the near edge of Williamsport and northwest to the near edge of DuBois – an area comprising about 320,000 people, Rodgers said.

The Chicago flights represent good news for the traveling public, said Ross and Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling, the commissioners’ representative on the authority.

But it may tend to accentuate the relative dearth of connections at Altoona-Blair County Airport, which only offers flights to Dulles. None of the authority members are satisfied with the level of service at Altoona-Blair County, Ross said.

“It is what it is,” Meling said.

Altoona-Blair County probably couldn’t have offered a flight to Chicago without a longer runway, anyway, both said.

For State College, though, the new Chicago service will provide travelers with “options, flexibility, frequency and choice,” Rodgers said.